“Am I going to remember you later on when I’m getting fucked?” Cardi B. asked a rapper auditioning for Rhythm + Flow, Netflix’s hip-hop competition series. She has a blunt answer for him: “No.” Cut to Snoop Dogg: “This ain’t The Voice, motherfuckers.”
No, it’s certainly not. It’s giving attention to talent and a genre that has been rarely included in—or completely excluded from—the big singing competitions. But is this a show you’ll remember while you’re getting fucked? I’m not sure.
There have been other hip-hop and rapping competitions: season two of MTV’s Making the Band, VH1’s Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show, BET’s One Shot, the T.I.-produced Oxygen show Sisterhood of Hip Hop to name a few. But notably, those are smaller, lower-budget competitions on cable networks; Rhythm and Flow is definitely the most high-profile entry.
It’s dispensed with the facade of artificiality that surrounds American Idol and similar shows, and has made other changes such as just giving its winner $250,000 in cash (instead of as part of a record deal).
Yet Rhythm and Flow has still retained a lot of the same beats as the shows that have preceded it.
In the opening audition episodes, contestants are introduced with clip packages and b-roll; series judges and mentors Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I. end up in chairs in front of a screaming audience, although in a club, not a soundstage; and that audience sometimes sounds suspiciously like the same audience sound effect that gets layered on top of broadcast network competitions to make it sound like people are clapping and cheering nonstop.
Later, there’s a battle round, and a music video challenge. None of this entirely new. And that’s fine, especially since, while it’s using established elements of other reality TV competitions, it also adds its own twists, from the cypher round to just the general tone of the show.
There is a looseness to everything, from Cardi B’s witty commentary to the way an audience member leaps onto the stage even though he’s not an actual contestant. This is also a music competition that’s not confined to a soundstage set, which lets a formatted show drift into unformatted territory.
It’s not The Voice or American Idol with hip-hop instead of pop and rock, and that’s refreshing. There’s no desperation to be everything to everyone.
Still, there’s often evidence that all of this is just as (over-)produced as The Voice, like what sounds like audience sound effects.
For another example, in episode one, after T.I. meets with Nipsey Hussle (as he says in a voice over, that’s one of the last times T.I. saw Nipsey Hussle before he was killed in that very place), they go listen to a potential contestant. That’s played as a spontaneous visit, but there are marks taped to the floor where everyone needs to stand.
I’d say the show hasn’t seemed to break through into the larger cultural conversation in the way, say, The Masked Singer did earlier this year, but what Netflix show has? Queer Eye, maybe?
Its distribution model—spreading the show over three weeks—did get attention. While I appreciate that experimentation, the idea of withholding the reveal of finalists and the winner was undercut entirely by People magazine publishing an interview with the winner at 6:30 a.m. today.
It’s possible people watched the final three episodes starting when they were released, at 3 a.m. this morning, but Netflix itself isn’t even live-tweeting those three episodes until tonight.
The show didn’t really keep my attention; I wasn’t necessarily excited for today’s final three episodes. But, as with any review or recation, this may be about me. I’m not overly familiar with or knowledgeable about hip-hop, its stars and variations, I don’t think I’m the target audience—and that’s something I genuinely appreciated about the show.
The episodes I watched never tried to make the show for everyone. This is not hip-hop 101, but a competition immersed in a genre that is thriving but hasn’t been centered enough in reality TV.
So I’ll direct you instead to a few people who do know the genre, and reality TV hip-hop competitions, and who have different takes on Rhythm and Flow.
Pierre’s analysis includes discussion of “flaws in the format,” and writes that “Rhythm + Flow is not at all about finding a good rapper. Or at least not about finding a good rapper that would actually fit into the 2019 hip-hop landscape. And that’s fine.” (Read the full piece.)
Slate’s music critic, Carl Wilson, wrote that Rhythm + Flow Is American Idol for the Hip-Hop Era, and argues that “hip-hop is the genre that could most be called ‘reality music,’ as it plays with the borderlines of life and pretense in parallel ways to the TV format, as behind-the-scenes dramatics and adopted personae become elements and contexts of songs, and vice versa.”
Wilson also highlights “a sequence unlike anything I’ve seen on mainstream nonfiction TV, when Snoop taunts the 33-year-old Inglewood high school teacher D Smoke—whose rhymes often touch on local street violence—by asking twice, ‘Where you from, homie?‘” (Read the full piece.)
Finally, Caroline Framke’s review of the show in Variety says the show is “more ambitious (and its contestants far more actively involved in their own music production) than” American Idol, and says “Cardi B is a perfect reality show judge … Chance and T.I. have solid advice, and yet neither demonstrates the eye for branding or what makes a star that Cardi does.”
Framke also likes the format, noting that, in later stages, contestants “get more of an opportunity to showcase their own sounds, personal histories and creativity. These latter challenges are also geared toward helping the competitors become more savvy about the demands of the music industry.” (Read the full piece.)